Whippany, N.J. – Building a professional soccer team is hard, especially when your star player, Thierry Henry, has already walked off into the sunset and a new rival, New York City FC, is hogging all of the media attention.
The job doesn’t become any easier when in your first act in charge of the team, you turn your new club’s most fervent fans against you, but that is exactly what Ali Curtis did when he fired uber popular New York Red Bulls coach Mike Petke last January 7, just two weeks after taking the job.
“I was a very unpopular person for the first couple of months,” Curtis acknowledged to GotSoccer in a wide ranging chat Thursday morning at the Red Bulls bucolic training center in suburban New Jersey.
Curtis spoke with GotSoccer just a few days after the Red Bulls defeated the Portland Timbers to become the first team to qualify for the Major League Soccer playoffs.
As he waited for his team to emerge onto the verdant practice fields in Whippany, New Jersey Curtis let GotSoccer in on his thought process upon taking on the job of running New York’s original MLS club.
“I’m smart enough to know that there are always challenges,” Curtis relayed, “especially when you are making big and drastic changes.”
Replacing Petke with Jesse Marsch certainly qualified as a “big and drastic” change, but Curtis needed the right man to implement his plan, and the Sporting Director was confident that Marsch was that man.
On Thursday, just over eight months after hiring Marsch on the same day that he let Petke go, Curtis said, “I think we’re in a really good place.”
Relaxed, but measuring his words carefully, Curtis told GotSoccer that, “for lack of a better phrase, everything is going according to plan.”
And what is that plan? “First and foremost,” said the plans architect, “it was to really establish an identity and not just this team, but also the entire organization.”
“Coming in,” Curtis expounded, “in terms of, what’s our vision, what’s our philosophy, what are the core principles that we live by, what’s our style of play?” “And,” Curtis added, “what are our long term goals and what are our short term goals?”
So it’s more than the high press then. Notice that style of play was the fourth question Curtis posed.
Then Curtis broke the whole project down into three parts. “Those three components were very important. Strategy and identity, communications, as well as staffing,” was how Curtis put it.
Staffing, of course starts at the top, in this case with head coach Jesse Marsch, who Curtis says shares his philosophy.
Given the circumstances surrounding the Marsch hire, many assumed the two men were the best of friends. “Yeah,” Curtis said when GotSoccer inquired about his past relationship with the former Montreal Impact coach.
Laughing, Curtis said, “you had a lot of this come out that we were buddies and we weren’t.” “I didn’t know how many kids he had, I didn’t know who his wife was, in fact,” added Curtis, “I didn’t know Jesse that well.”
Of course, the Sporting Director did his research and says that “Jesse and I are different people, but philosophically, stylistically, in many ways we’re very similar.”
Speaking to a small press contingent after Thursday’s practice the coach echoed Curtis’s main points. “We knew a lot of the same people, “ Marsch said, “and a lot of the same people felt that we were both good men. So when we met and we started comparing ideas, we kind of realized there was a lot of symmetry in the way that we think and work.”
Referencing the preseason town hall meeting that saw Red Bulls fans vent their anger at Curtis and Marsch in the wake of the Petke firing, Marsch chuckled when he said, “when you have a town meeting after you really get to know somebody after two days, your bonds are forged a little bit stronger.”
Those bonds have strengthened throughout a season that has gone better than just about anyone could have expected. With Marsch as the point man, the Curtis plan has worked a charm on the field, with the Red Bulls pressing teams to distraction while fashioning a team first mentality that the club has ridden to top of the MLS standings.
His plan ahead of schedule, the Red Bulls are a team on its way to answering its Sporting Directors questions, and Cutis is much more popular these days with the Red Bull fanbase.
Curtis was never overly concerned. “In the New York metropolitan market you gotta be tough,” Curtis told GotSoccer. “You have to have a thick skin, and I’m fine with that. I believe in our plan, I believe in our people and I think over time people have gotten to understand what we’re doing and what this is all about, and,” Curtis summed up, “that’s good.”